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story behind the book | kate tuttle

How crime runs in families

david wilson for the boston globe

While reporting on criminal justice for The New York Times, journalist Fox Butterfield was in and out of prisons a lot. One thing he saw struck him. “In a number of places I visited there were fathers and sons in the same cell,” he said. “I was really taken by this, and I started writing about how crime runs in families.”

“In My Father’s House,” Butterfield’s newest book, chronicles several generations of the Bogles, a white family with roots in Tennessee and Texas. The prison official in Oregon who introduced Butterfield to them believed there were six Bogles imprisoned. A decade’s reporting showed that no fewer than 60 past and present Bogles had done time.

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This fits with the research, Butterfield added. “I kept stumbling across these studies,” he said, “showing these incredibly high rates of crime being passed down through families.” For years, scholars have studied risk factors for crime, including poverty, lack of education, and growing up in dangerous neighborhoods, but, said Butterfield, “all kids start out their lives within their family.”

Many Bogles were willing to talk with Butterfield for the book. They had mixed feelings about their family history, which included grifters, drifters, and thieves. “It’s upsetting, and it can be very embarrassing,” he said. “The way they expressed it was that they had almost like a disease. They called it the family curse.”

“There’s no such thing as a crime gene,” Butterfield said, but added that children in these families inherit a combination of genetic vulnerability, epigenetic echoes of past trauma, and limited examples for how adults live. “It’s not nature or nurture,” he said, “it’s the interplay between them.” Considering family history when assessing at-risk youth could help, Butterfield said. “Not to stigmatize the family, but to get help for the younger members of the family.”

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Butterfield will read at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 9, at Harvard Book Store.

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Kate Tuttle, president of the National Book Critics Circle, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.